Ted Sorensen on Writing JFK’s Speeches
Theodore C. Sorensen, former special counsel and adviser to President John F. Kennedy and a widely published author on the presidency and foreign affairs, practiced international law for more than 36 years as a senior partner, and now of counsel, at the prominent U.S. law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. The former chairman of the firm’s International Practice Committee, he has represented U.S. and multinational corporations in negotiations with governments all over the world and advised and assisted a large number of foreign governments and government leaders, ranging from the late President Sadat of Egypt to former President Mandela of South Africa.
Mr. Sorensen and his team at Paul, Weiss have advised U.S. corporations on factories in Russia and Africa, pipelines in the Caribbean and Latin America, and disputes in the Middle East and North America, and negotiated on their behalf with government officials at the highest level in dozens of countries. He has advised foreign corporations from five continents on investments in the United States and elsewhere, foreign governments on problems with the World Bank, the United Nations, the U.S. government and foreign investors, and on changes in their respective mining, petroleum, investment and election codes, and constitutions.
In 2002, Mr. Sorensen was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Mr. Sorensen is on the advisory board of the Foreign Policy Leadership Council, a director of the Council on Foreign Relations (until 2004) and the Century Foundation, a member of the advisory board of the Partnership for a Secure America and an honorary co-chair of the ABA Commission on the Renaissance of Idealism in the Legal Profession. Mr. Sorensen is the author of the 1965 international best seller Kennedy, seven other books on the presidency, politics or foreign policy and numerous articles on those subjects in Foreign Affairs, The New York Times and other publications. As an active figure in the Democratic Party, he has participated in 10 of the last 12 Democratic Party National Conventions and served in a number of governmental, political and civic posts. Appointed by President Bill Clinton, he served on the boards of the Central Asian-American Enterprise Fund (covering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) and the Commission on White House Fellows. He is experienced in the ways of Washington, the United Nations and the multilateral (World Bank, IFC, etc.) and U.S. (AID, OPIC, etc.) financing institutions.
Mr. Sorensen was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1928. He is father of three sons, one daughter and is married to Gillian Martin Sorensen, a former New York City commissioner, a former United Nations under-secretary general and current senior advisor and national advocate at the United Nations Foundation. Mr. Sorensen's memoirs, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, were published by HarperCollins in May of 2008.
Question: What was the process of writing a speech for JFK?
Ted Sorensen: There was no mystery to it. He and I had worked together at the end for 11 years. When you . . . Starting in the fall of 1956, we spent three, four years traveling the country together just the two of us to every one of the 50 states. And you get to know somebody, and his way of thinking, and his way of speaking pretty well when you do it day after day in all 50 states for three years or more. And so the ideas were his. The policies were his. The judgments and decisions were his. And when he expressed those decisions in the White House, it was not difficult for me having participated in the meeting to go a few steps down that hall to my office and try to reflect in words on paper the first draft of the decision he wanted to convey to the public. I’m happy to say that I usually submitted it to the President’s Chief Domestic Advisor. That was me. And I submitted it to the President’s Senior Policy Advisor and senior staff member, but that also was me. So being immodest about it, basically I only had to submit it to John F. Kennedy knowing that the policy expressed in the paper was his policy. And I wanted him to be comfortable with the words. And he changed that paper sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot. Sometimes he would reject an entire paragraph. If I liked it, I might find the speech a couple of weeks later and I would try to sneak it back in. Sometimes he would recognize it when I did.
Question: What is it like to watch someone else speak what you wrote?
Ted Sorensen: It’s a great sense of satisfaction and pride. My parents were two dedicated Americans who brought me up to try to change the country and the world – try to make it a better place for all mankind. I was nobody. I was elected to nothing. But there I was able to help shape the words and even the . . . sometimes the thoughts of the leader of the free world. So to have him using words on which I had worked was, of course, a means of satisfaction and pride.
Recorded on: 1/30/08
Sorensen watched JFK deliver words he had written with great satisfaction and pride.
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